Chapter Five

Getting Engaged

During the time that I’ve been writing this book, a sobering realisation, at least in Europe and North America, has taken hold. Recovery from the financial meltdown of 2008 is going to take decades, not years. So, one inevitable consequence of adjusting to the new economic reality is that, if we’re not able to tempt employees with high salaries, company bosses will be under even more pressure to make work a more fulfilling and satisfying place to be. 

And here, at last, there’s some good news: we’ve set a very low bar. Levels of employee engagement and employee autonomy couldn’t be much lower if we were all working in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

Living, as we are, through an age of corporate austerity, it might seem like bad timing to be advocating employee engagement. CEOs could be forgiven for thinking that employee engagement comes a poor second behind financial survival. Making employees more productive might seem like a smarter move than keeping them engaged. A stream of studies in recent years, however, has demonstrated an irrefutable link between employee engagement, innovation and profitability. Too often CEOs see engagement as not contributing to the bottom-line. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the most profitable and innovative companies in the world also have the most engaged employees.

The logic chain goes like this: to survive in a cut-throat market, businesses need innovation to be a core function; innovation demands creativity; creativity comes out of curiosity (and learning); engagement is a necessary precursor to both. As Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School argues, “employee engagement is the sine qua non of innovation. In my experience … you cannot foster true innovation without engaged employees.”24

The estimated cost in lost productivity of employee disengagement is $300bn per year in the US alone.25 It’s perhaps understandable that, having suffered one of the deepest and longest-lasting economic recessions in living memory, most companies in the West understandably place employee engagement a long way behind survival in their strategic priorities. But losing $300bn a year shows the financial cost of overlooking engagement.

The largest study in recent years – The Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study – surveyed over half a million employees from 50 companies around the world. It reported a 52 percent gap in improved operating income between companies with high and low employee engagement scores. Similarly, a Gallup report in 2007 asked workers if their job brought out their most creative ideas: 59 percent of engaged employees replied positively, while only three percent of disengaged employees did so. That’s why engagement matters.

Harvard Business Professor, Teresa Amabile, has studied what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful companies. Her conclusion? Forget incentive schemes, and concentrate on the ‘inner work life’ of employees: their emotions, perceptions and intrinsic motivations. Amabile claims inner work life is a key element of employee engagement, which in turn drives performance, and she will happily quote from other studies highlighting the links between job satisfaction and company performance.26

If these correlation-ships seem obvious (and they should) you have to wonder why so few company executives ‘get it’. How else to explain the appallingly low rates of employee engagement? Surveys consistently estimate workers defined as not engaged, or disengaged at 60 percent, or higher. Gallup’s 2011 survey presented a worsening picture, with grave implications for worker morale:

“The overall results indicate that 11 percent of workers worldwide are engaged. In other words, about one in nine employees worldwide is emotionally connected to their workplaces and feels he or she has the resources and support they need to succeed. The majority of workers, 62%, are not engaged – that is, emotionally detached and likely to be doing little more than is necessary to keep their jobs. And 27 percent are actively disengaged, indicating they view their workplaces negatively and are liable to spread that negativity to others.”27  

Engagement has an impact in almost every aspect of work: employee well-being (disengaged employees take almost three times the number of sickness days off, compared to engaged workers); company loyalty (engaged employees are 87 percent less likely to leave their job), and customer relations (a 53 percent gap in understanding customer needs, between the engaged and disengaged employee).  

Permission To Think

Employee engagement has fallen consistently in recent decades, and the underlying causes are varied. Loss of autonomy is clearly one. In 1986, 72 percent of professionals felt they had a ‘great deal’ of independence doing their jobs. By 2006, that number had fallen to 38 percent. 

A shift to employees working from a script has become all too apparent in some jobs. We’ve all experienced the frustration that often comes when we have to call for an insurance quote, or technical support, and are put through to a scripted conversation with someone in a call centre. Increasingly, however, we see this loss of autonomy in more senior roles. It used to be that a visit to your local general practitioner sparked a doctor-to-patient discussion. Now, (if my personal experience is typical) it’s doctor-to-computer.

During the writing of this chapter, I visited my doctor to ask for some blood tests, as I was struggling to shake off a virus. In order to simply attach a label to my blood going off to the test lab, she had to follow a screen-by-screen set of questions: had I been abroad recently? (if yes to ‘Far East’, test for avian flu); unusual bowel motions? (test for Coeliac Disease). It was faintly comical to see her trying to request a test for Clostridium Difficile, only to be told that the computer said ‘no’. 

As the lab labels spewed out of her printer she was instructed to ‘affix label A to red vial’, and so on… OK, we know that mistakes happen, but seeing seven years of training and 20-years’ professional practice reduced to a series of tick boxes must be quite dispiriting.

According to the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty this loss of autonomy for professional white-collar workers is only going to get worse in the near future due to the impact of technology and knowledge process outsourcing. Citing the academic I quoted in Chapter One, Phillip Brown, Chakrabortty paints a depressing picture:

If you’re a bank manager you have far fewer individual powers than your predecessor would have had in the 80s. And if you’re a teller, it’s standard practice to work from a script… a high-up banker who used to be in charge of lending decisions (finds) his expertise has now been supplanted by a credit controller, described as "a software package that automatically assesses a loan application according to specific criteria" Brown and his colleagues talk about a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have “permission to think.” The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions…think call centres rather than groovy offices and you’re most of the way there.” 

If loss of autonomy is a factor in the erosion of engagement, loss of trust is another. As we saw in Chapter Three, productivity inevitably rises when workers feel secure and happy. Yet a 2010 survey found that 53 percent of workers felt that their boss didn’t treat them as a professional equal, with 37 percent saying their boss had ‘thrown them under the bus’ to save themselves.28

Curiously, when employee engagement surveys are conducted, an employee’s attitude to learning and development doesn’t seem to be a factor – precisely because no one ever asks them about it. 

Items on engagement surveys frequently highlight clarity of job purpose, employer trust, feedback and support from supervisors, perceptions of organisational values, quality of working relationships, but almost never the extent to which an employee feels they are learning and personally developing. As we shall see, student engagement isn’t exactly a cause for celebration either, but almost all student engagement surveys at least recognise the importance of learning. 

What lies beneath the absence of learning as a factor in employee engagement? Could it be that so much learning in the workplace is tacit – acquired informally through observation and osmosis – that we simply don’t see it, and therefore under-value it? Are formal opportunities, provided through classroom-based training and almost universally viewed as ‘boring’, giving the role of learning at work a bad name? Or do employers simply see an employee’s knowledge and skills as something to be mined, not replenished? 

Whatever the reasons, when we look at successful companies who have created innovative learning environments, it’s clear that the learning context is both a powerful performance motivator and a significant factor in holding on to good staff. Employers ignore the connection between learning and engagement at their peril.

What Did You Do In School Today?

Engagement in formal education mirrors engagement in the workplace. Student engagement – or rather, the lack of it – in schools and colleges, is perhaps the number one cause for concern among educators. The statistics are distressing: 

– 98 percent of US students feel bored at school at least some of the time; two-thirds feel bored

every day; 17 percent say they are bored every lesson.29 

– 10 percent of English students claim to ‘hate’ school.30 

– Estimates of English 14 to 16-year-olds defining themselves as ‘disengaged’ vary from 20-33 percent. These students are predominantly white, male, and from disadvantaged backgrounds, and are most likely to truant.31

– Engagement decreases progressively – In Canada 82 percent of Grade 5 students are

intellectually engaged in school. By grade 11 that number has halved. Only 31 percent of

students are interested in and motivated to learn, in Canadian.32 

– One in four American high school students drop out of school each year. 80 percent of US students don’t see how school contributes to their learning, and 60 percent don’t list learning as the reason they go to school.

As depressing as these stats may be, I personally find the values and aspirations that lie behind the statistics to be more worrying. I would be willing to bet that a parent, being confronted with these figures, is more than likely to respond with a ‘Yes, and?’ 

As someone who has been passionate about getting students more engaged in their learning, I’m never less than surprised at adult expectations – it’s as if we no longer expect students to be engaged in school, just so long as they’re achieving and keeping out of trouble. 

In attempting to rationalise this dearth of aspiration Professor Mick Waters, a former Director of Curriculum at the UK government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority once said to me, ‘Too many of us expect learning to be like a cold shower – if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t doing you any good’.

The real problem with student engagement on a social level is that the numbers of visibly disengaged represent just the tip of the iceberg. Many students fall into a category, described to me by one UK teacher, as ‘radiator kids’ (not doing much except keeping the room warm); still others are classified as ‘disengaged achievers,’ gaining good grades, but emotionally disinvested in their learning. 

Internationally, student engagement is unevenly distributed. Engagement has dramatically fallen in countries, like England and the United States, where anxiety over ‘international competitiveness’ has led to a deadening emphasis upon high-stakes national standardised testing. In these countries, many kids view schools, not as places of exploration, but as exam factories. 

The irony is that student outcomes improve in those countries where a greater emphasis upon engagement goes alongside a lessening of importance on high-stakes testing. As writer Alfie Kohn has noted, ‘when interest appears, achievement usually follows’.33

The Best Days Of Your Life?

Should we be concerned about students becoming increasingly disengaged, especially if they’re gaining the qualifications needed to find a job? Well, even if you accept that passing school exams and getting a degree will enable them to get good jobs – which as we’ve seen must now be in some doubt – the unintended ‘side effect’ of this processing of students to become achieving, not engaged, learners, is to kill off a love of learning. American educators label this ‘drilling and killing’. 

Disengaged students become disengaged employees – or non-employed. In 2011, the UK figure for people aged 16-24 not in employment, education or training (NEETS) was over one million – the highest since records were kept34. This represents one in five young people, and includes 10 percent (and steadily rising) that possess the qualifications needed to go to university, but have chosen not to apply. 

Conversely, a recent longitudinal Australian study – one of the few to focus upon engagement in school – found that engagement was a key determinant of student success 20 years later: ‘The more children felt connected to their school community and felt engaged, rather than bored, the greater their likelihood of achieving a higher educational qualification and going on to a professional or managerial career.’35

Instead of regarding disengagement in school as an inevitable feature of adolescent angst, we should see it for what it really is: a shocking waste of young potential which has lifelong consequences. Sadly, rather than becoming intentional about engagement, too many education leaders waste time working out which lever to pull to force teachers and students to do more, work harder, while teachers waste time coming up with ways to deflect blame. And, at the end of the line, those to whom learning is done waste time pretending to be interested. A visionary principal at an outstanding Australian primary school once shared a comment from one of her brighter students. When he was asked what school had taught him, he replied that the most important thing he’d learned was ‘how to fall asleep with my eyes open’. 

And yet, if we could prioritise engagement in school we might finally address one of the most intractable of social problems: the so-called ‘achievement gap’. Repeated surveys have suggested that a child’s life chances are predominantly shaped, not by their education, but by their postcode location. The Australian study quoted earlier, however, found that, ‘children’s interest and engagement in school influences their prospects of educational and occupational success 20 years later, over and above their academic attainment and socio-economic background’. 

In other words, an engaged student, from a disadvantaged background, is likely to have better life chances than a disengaged child from a better-off background. It’s hard to understand, in the light of this kind of evidence, why policy makers aren’t more interested in engagement in school.

The social and economic costs of student and employee disengagement should have us all worried. The linkage between employee engagement and company performance is irrefutable. But students who are disengaged from school are likely not simply to be disengaged from work, but from civic society too. 

It’s not just quarterly sales figures that are affected by falling levels of engagement. The glue that holds our societies together is dependent upon our finding ways to re-engage our students, our employees and our citizens.

Why Engaging Learning Environments Matter

So far we’ve seen that the combined forces of disintermediation, globalisation, long-term recovery from the global financial crisis and the transfer of economic power from west to east, have profound consequences for us all. Previous certainties have become dangerously unstable. We are simultaneously fearful, disengaged and nervous about the future. 

We need hardly make matters worse, by driving the enjoyment out of earning a living or going to school. And yet that is precisely what we’re doing, by trusting employees and students less, by eroding their scope for independent thought and actions, and by not attaching sufficient importance to engagement, and learning.

The places where formal learning and training takes place need to adopt open principles and recognise the critical importance of engagement in, and through, learning. The overwhelming majority of our businesses still see learning as something delivered by qualified ‘trainers’ in places that still look like classrooms. Meanwhile, our truly innovative companies have long understood that, as Harold Jarche observed, ‘Work is Learning and Learning is the Work’, and are reaping the rewards as a result. 

Political and social upheaval, of the kind we are living through, often creates the breeding grounds for a new generation of visionaries. The counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s produced the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee who irrevocably changed the way we work, play and communicate. I believe the visionaries of the future are likely to emerge from the kind of environments where learning is collaborative, social, passion-led and values-driven, networked, horizontal, democratic and creative. 

We have to abandon the antiquated, enclosed learning systems upon which we currently rely and seek to engage the young social activists, entrepreneurs and technologists of today in re-imagining the open systems of tomorrow. And fast.


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